It’s an understatement to say that snowboarding saved me from myself during the dark days of my recovery. It gave me my life back and led me to so many opportunities in the outdoors. My healing did not take place within four walls of a hospital. I had to lose my mind and starve my ego, to find myself again. Snowboarding gave me that chance. It would be selfish of me to not pay it forward now. It was my absolute honor to host the ladies for the clinic. Watching people learn to snowboard and fall in love with it just like I did, is even more rewarding than my own turns. Thank you to those of you who rallied behind this vision of mine. I’m forever grateful. And you know I had to write about it… the good, the great, and the slightly terrifying moments.
75% of the Time, Every Time, My Plan Goes According to Plan
One of the ways my foundation plans to build community and create healthy lifestyles for those involved with our program is to offer quarterly recreational therapy clinics, or as I call them, exposure therapy clinics. Depending on the season, we introduce a sport to our participants and outfit them to continue pursuing it as a means of healing. The clinics are all unique because sometimes the participants are the disabled community, or veteran community, women, or even our youth. At TKEF, we are not limited to only helping one group. We are here to help as many as we can, for as long as we can.
Back in Fall of 2019, I presented my board with the idea of hosting an all women veterans snowboarding clinic. With the pressures of creating a documentary, finding funding, and being swamped beneath outreach, social media, and keeping the organization afloat, I circled back on my pitch and decided it was best to wait until I could give the planning process my undivided attention. I was proud of my responsible decision.
Fast forward. I changed my mind again in late November 2019. Typical woman. I woke up in the middle of the night, my brain thumping with ideas and my mind racing. “Screw it,” I thought to myself. I was going to plan a snowboarding clinic for early February. I drafted the email to my board in the wee hours of the morning, taking back my last decision, and hit the ground running. Before I knew it, my fingers were dancing across my laptop’s keyboard, and emails were being fired off in every direction.
Eventually, my adrenaline and excitement faded, and I closed my eyes. To my surprise, when I opened my laptop hours later, I had an overwhelming amount of support from two of the best and biggest names in the world of snowboarding – Burton and Dragon Alliance. Tears ran down my face as both companies offered donations without hesitation. Now, I had boots, boards, bindings, goggles, beanies, and glasses… but what about the ladies.
With the help of some friends, I drafted an application and started circulating it. I contacted some of my most trusted connections in the nonprofit world and requested recommendations and referrals. My hippie side came out, and I even put out into the universe that I didn’t care where they came from, or how they got to where they are — I just wanted women veterans who would appreciate this experience and gain something from it. I wanted women who would find healing in snowboarding and those who needed community and sisterhood. And of course, preferably not criminals.
After applications were reviewed and the TKEF team made their decisions, I requested the supporting documentation… a couple of waivers, size info, and a DD214. What I read on the DD214s blew my mind. These were some of the most badass women I have ever come across, and without saying, the humblest. Even after their initial interviews, I had no idea how tough and seasoned these ladies were. The universe, Jesus, Buddha, whoever you believe in, brought me exactly who I envisioned coming together.
Molly is a 14-year Army Military Police veteran having seen both Afghanistan and Iraq, and even dawns a Bronze Star Medal. Leah is a four-year Navy veteran who enlisted prior to 9/11 and was aboard the first ship to show presence on the coast of Pakistan. Bren is a three-year Army veteran who deployed to Afghanistan in 2002, who later showed that family comes first by giving her sister one of her kidneys. Last but not least, Amanda is a ten-year Army veteran who also served as an MP and sustained injuries in Afghanistan.
I was beyond impressed with the ladies initially, but what made them that much more impressive was the women they grew into after their service. All of them are mothers, some of them raising their children alone. Some are dealing with life changing injuries and recoveries. And others are still working through their invisible injuries while owning businesses, going to school, and being involved in veteran nonprofits.
At the Kirstie Ennis Foundation, we are a very small team. We consist of three board members, an administrative hand, and a few volunteers. I spent countless hours seeking out donors and sponsors, donated my personal money, and tapped into every local resource I knew to be able to plan and hopefully provide the best experiences for these women. After all, they deserve them. So, before I get too far into this – thank you to every business and individual who did not immediately delete my emails and requests. Thank you for hearing me out and believing in what I was setting out to do! To Burton and Dragon Alliance, thank you for coming through in a huge way. To the local businesses: The Pullman, Rivers, Phat Thai, Iron Mountain Hot Springs, and Hotel Colorado – thank you for donating meals and experiences, or discounting accommodations. HUGE thank you to Sunlight Mountain for donating the lift passes and instruction to the Kirstie Ennis Foundation – and offering a discount on season passes to those local to the area. I TRULY COULD NOT DO THIS WITHOUT YOU ALL!
To my mom, thank you for listening and letting me throw tantrums throughout this entire process. Thank you for laughing at my terrible jokes to make me feel better, and for reminding me that even the suck would be worth it when I got to see the ladies on their boards. To Megan, the newest addition to the TKEF team – thank you for your creativity and commitment to what we do. You’ve worked so much behind the scenes, and I can’t thank you enough for sharing some of my not so glamorous workload. I am so thankful you came on board when you did!
Icy You, Baby
I remember being in the Marine Corps and rolling my eyes at the “if you’re fifteen minutes early, you’re late” mentality. Well, let’s just say I get it now. I. Get. It. We were meant to be ready to go for the ladies’ first lesson at 10 AM. Doesn’t quite work out that way when you’re throwing it in to park at the mountain at 950 AM. I hopped out and told everyone to get their gear on as I rushed around to find the marketing director, our instructor, and grab our lift passes.
Low and behold, the instructor (Dan) was actually a fella that I went to Freeport High School with, in a tiny town in the Panhandle of Florida. What are the odds? I read his name tag and below it, it said, “Destin, FL.” After reminiscing and swapping embarrassing stories, it was go time for the ladies. Initially, they started off in the small corral section, where three of the four ladies learned to put on a snowboard for the very first time. I was grinning from ear to ear. Sure, I was excited to watch them learn, but admittedly – watching them fumble their way through techniques, their verbal comebacks, and even facial expressions were pretty phenomenal.
For nearly an hour they tumbled down the fifteen-foot stretch of snow. After a quick break, we were on to lessons for how to load and unload the chairlift. With a crooked smile, I reminded the ladies that even after seven years of snowboarding, I still fall off of the chair lift. Surprisingly, everyone did really well — though Cody, our most active volunteer/photographer, and I got tangled up. They all walked down to a flat stretch to get their first real on-snow lessons as I rode and watched from afar.
The ladies all picked it up fairly quickly. Despite countless falls, and some pretty nasty bumps and bruises, they all relentlessly shook off the pain and blows to their pride and continued to let it rip. 1 PM rolled around, and Dan was off to his next group. Naturally, I wanted to at least get one solid run in and prepped to head back out. As I was leaving, Bren said she wanted to go with us. My stoke tank was now full.
We hopped back on the lift to our magic carpet run. We clicked into our Step-On bindings, and Bren sent it. I couldn’t help, but let out a high pitched, “Yewwwwww.” If I could describe Bren in any way, she’s persistent. I watched her take a couple of diggers, to include a world-class tomahawk, as her knees bent behind her and her board tapped the back of her helmet. She sat for a moment and took a few deep breaths before looking up at me. Normally, with new snowboarders and tired ones at that, the last thing they want to do is listen, let alone do what you say – but Bren was killing it.
On the final stretch, I told Bren to watch me and follow my line. For a solid thirty seconds, Bren traversed the run and stopped right at the grill patio where the rest of our group was packing up. I gave Bren a high five and hugged her. I couldn’t believe how happy I was. This feeling was exactly why I had hoped to create this clinic. It’s now more rewarding for me to teach others, than snowboard myself. For what seemed like hours, I bragged on Bren and her end of day performance to everyone I encountered. Proud friend moment for sure.
I warned the ladies at dinner the night before to be prepared to be sore and tired, and of course, left them with the reminder to hydrate or die. They all tumbled out of the truck with looks of exhaustion resting on their faces. With their matted hair and goggle lines, they grabbed their personal gear and headed to their rooms to get cleaned up before dinner. I was excited to get them over to one of my favorite restaurants on Main Street in Carbondale, Phat Thai. Spicy flavors and warm curry were exactly what the doctor prescribed.
My Drug of Choice is White Powder
It’s Super Bowl Sunday and no better day than to be out on the mountain. The sun was shining, the kooks were at home, and the runs were groomed. To avoid any scheduling mishaps and to keep our instructor friend Dan content, I decided that I would pick up breakfast burritos for the ladies on the way to pick them up from Hotel Colorado. I also told them that they would be eating in the car. We pulled up to Sunlight at 920 AM, when I immediately texted the marketing director and Dan, “Holy shit. We’re actually on time.” I brought Leah into the rental shop to heat mold her boots and told the ladies to start getting everything on.
To my surprise, every time I turned around one of the ladies was in the bathroom. This debunked the age-old myth that women go to the bathroom in groups. At 955 AM we finally had everyone in one place and got situated to go straight to the chair lifts. I could tell some of the ladies were nervous, but I can’t say that I blame them. The chair lifts can be a stressful place.
Bren rode the first run down almost halfway before taking a break and Amanda was close behind her. Leah worked with Dan for one on one instruction most of the morning, while Cody and I helped Amanda and Bren navigate finding their balance on their toe side and introduced them to J turns. I am beyond impressed with all of these ladies and their commitment to learning. Snowboarding is a painful sport to pick up, but they got back up every single time and never let their frustrations get the best of them. Later, Dan worked with Amanda and Bren, while Cody worked with Leah. I am so grateful to have had such amazing volunteers and patient instructors for this event. It really wouldn’t be possible without them.
After lunchtime, Cody, Molly, and I planned to sneak in a hot lap before taking some of the other ladies out, and Bren asked if she could tag along again. Initially, I was hesitant, but everyone’s stoke was so high and Bren let me know she was confident. I cringed as we passed a sign that said, “This lift is not for beginners.” The whole ride up, I panicked. I knew there was a long section of cat track, every snowboarder’s nightmare. I envisioned her ending up on a blue run, or way worse, on moguls.
The old lifts sling you off, but Bren stayed upright. We all got into our boards and I nervously explained to Bren what she was going to encounter. I passed her and waited at a sharp turn to make sure she stayed on the easiest way down. As we played this game of leapfrog, she passed me, and I wiped out at a standstill. Not my most impressive moment. I caught speed and slung myself through the last turn of the cat track and waited at the opening to the wide, empty green run. Out came Cody, and Molly, followed by Bren as she wore a massive smile. She looked really relaxed and calm, and I was relieved.
We took a little break and prepared Bren for the long run. I hoped she would take it slow and practice the drills. She didn’t. She was flying at times, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen harder crashes. But she was determined. The fall lines aren’t easy to read on Sunlight, and the more fatigued she got the harder it was for her to scrub her speed. I sat at the bottom of a hill and warned her to take it slow, as Molly and I watched. I swear she hit at least 20, then caught her toe side. As the white cloud of snow dissipated, I yelled for her to sit there a while and to just take a breather. There’s no way she didn’t tap her helmet hard.
After several minutes, Cody and Bren walked over to Molly and I where we sat and we reviewed some more instruction. This time, I didn’t let taking it slow be an option. There were going to be several more hills, and sections of flat where going slow was going to become an immediate stop, but we would all rather her walk sections, than get hurt. I couldn’t help but crack a smile every time I saw her little helmet come over the top of a hill. I am sure I was overthinking everything and unnecessarily stressing, but I wanted so badly for Bren to enjoy this run and I was terrified that I made the wrong call by letting her go up.
We chatted again briefly before the final stretch. It was a terrible fall line that runs under the two chair lifts before the grill. I told her to watch me, lean into the hill, keep her eyes up, and look at where she wanted to go. To my surprise, we flew and made it over to the patio before I could even offer any advice. I pulled off my goggles and glanced at Bren with a side eye and look of uncertainty – and she was grinning. I was clear to go in for the high fives! I was so damn proud. Even now, I can’t believe how well she bounced back every single time and never once complained.
We reunited with the group and grabbed a little grub. I toyed with the idea of not going back out and doing the responsible paperwork thing. I caught wind of a conversation of everyone going back out, and stuck around at the picnic tables with Leah and my mom. I watched my little flock work their way towards the chair lift. Lap after lap, I watched Cody, Molly, Bren, and Amanda rip it up on their snowboards. Once you catch the snowboarding bug, good luck getting rid of it. And it’s safe to say that this group got bit.
The experienced snowboarders reminded the ladies to not push themselves too hard because there was still one more day. We also reminded them to end on a good note, so waking up early to snowboard the following day was that much easier. I had planned to be off the mountain by 230 PM, but decided it was worth it to let them have their fun. We ended up leaving by 330 PM, and I got them amped up for prime rib at Rivers Restaurant, and a nice long soak at Iron Mountain Hot Springs. The snowboarding experience has been amazing, but the down time and conversation means equally as much.
With Great Powder Comes Great Responsibility
The weather rolled in quickly, and I was excited for the ladies to get a taste of riding in the elements, and hopefully a different type of terrain. As any snowboarder knows, riding groomers and riding powder is night and day. It was a frantic morning, but I was glad the ladies got to sleep in a little bit and would be along for the ride to play tourist up valley, and for those who wanted to get some runs in on Snowmass and on Sunlight. It was the final day of the trip and I wanted everything to go smooth.
Smooth like sandpaper. Our first stop along the way was to be at a small café to grab the ladies some coffee and breakfast. To our surprise, it was closed. Backup plan, we would just eat somewhere up valley. After a little deliberation about who would be up for riding up valley in these conditions, we started to unload the boards and make our way to the ticket office. 1, 2, 3, 4. Where was number 5? Where was my board? It certainly wasn’t with the other boards anymore.
I couldn’t help but laugh and told the ladies the phrase I hated the most growing up, “If that’s the worst thing that happens today, we’ve got it made.” I ran off to rent a board while Cody loaded up the chairlifts. Amanda stayed back and rode up with me. My rental bindings weren’t my favorite, nor was the board, but I was grateful to be out with the ladies still. We all regrouped at the top of the run. I was quite squirrelly on the new board, but the snow was like butter, and I had a blast watching the ladies navigate the new run and find their footing on the white fluff. I had so much fun, I even took a conference call on the mountain rather than heading down.
After a bit over an hour, I decided that I would hang up my board and stay back with Leah while the other girls rode. If snowboarding has taught me anything, it’s that if something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Between the flat light, low visibility, and a board I wasn’t stoked on, I was okay with retiring early.
We all grabbed a quick bite and Cody went out with Amanda and Bren went out with Molly. About an hour later and pushing 3 PM, I receive a selfie of Molly with a bloody nose and little explanation. I started to pull my hair out and immediately texted Bren who knew nothing about what happened. The end of the last two days, I jokingly made the comment, “We did it. Day one/two down with no broken wrists or tailbones.” “Shit,” I thought to myself, “Does a nose count?” While it pained me to see any of my new friends hurt, I was thankful it happened to Molly since she’s the toughest and most stubborn broad I think I’ve ever encountered.
When I found her in the aid station, I wasn’t surprised to see her laughing with the nurses and doctors as she explained, “I effed up.” Molly’s curiosity got the best of her and she ended up in the park. While she hit the box, she did not stick the landing, if you know what I mean. I knew a little blood and a couple of bruises weren’t going to keep her from snowboarding. I couldn’t believe she didn’t want any medicine either. She was so fixated on making sure her daughter was going to be okay for the evening, that she barely seemed to notice she broke her nose. Tough, but a damn good momma too. We broke her out of the aid station and loaded back up into the truck with Leah and Bren.
Because of my poor communication with Cody, he and Amanda ended up on a much longer run than originally planned. Due to the circumstances, once they came down, Amanda would ride back with Cody. With all of the controlled chaos, I honestly couldn’t help, but chuckle. Why wouldn’t this happen on the last day? But again, I am so thankful that these girls are who they are. They handled everything with grit and grace. We dropped Molly off at Valley View hospital to clear her to head home, and I dropped the other two ladies off at the hotel to unwind some.
When I got back to the hospital, I found Molly laughing, yet again with the staff. She works there, so some her best friends found the situation all too funny. It had to be the quickest ER stint ever with thirty minutes of being seen. After a quick trip to the pharmacy, we were bringing Molly to her truck so she could drive to be with her daughter. After loading up her stuff, she was off. Beast.
I stressed myself thinking that Amanda had a rough afternoon with the long run, and ultimately long day. But my phone lit up with a picture of her smiling and I let out a sigh of relief. They were on their way home, and the stars were still aligned for a nice close out dinner at the Pullman.
The conversation at dinner reminded me that even the hiccups could never outweigh the good that was done over the last few days. Bren made the comment that everything was perfect. Granted, I don’t think that was the case – but I did have to pat myself and my team on the back. For our first ever snowboarding clinic, I think we did damn good. Tears were shed and memories were made on our last evening together.
The Pain Won’t Last, But the Memories Will
Bren needed to be on her way to the airport at 930 AM, and Leah and Amanda wanted to be on the road by 10 AM. I pulled up to the hotel at 9 AM and we started sorting out the gear yet again. I was working on some logistics when I heard Bren say, “Where’s my board?” My stomach went into my throat. I thought we had all of the mishaps out of the way yesterday… I ran to the back of my truck, and sure enough, there was Molly’s board and not Bren’s. Molly took the wrong one last night. And again, I couldn’t help but laugh and reassured Bren that I would ship her board to her. Luckily, I don’t think there’s much snow in Atlanta right now.
I gave the ladies shirts and stickers and hoped that they all had a good enough time to at least share our mission and encourage others to be a part of what we are growing. I was relieved we made it through the clinic with everyone smiling, but a part of me was sad. I was secretly hoping the roads back to the front range would be closed and flights would be cancelled. That way, we’d all get another day on snow.
I learned a lot with planning and executing this clinic, and it was all absolutely worth it. My Kirstie Ennis Foundation family grew, I made new lifelong friends, we were able to give the gift of and love for snowboarding to others, and I was reassured that giving back and paying It forward is what truly makes me happy. Thank you to everyone for coming together for my foundation and for these women. Now, to plan the next one! Cheers!